Harley-Davidson Branded Boots Review

rideelsonMy screen name here is “Booted Harleydude.” I show images of me geared up in motorcycle boots, leather and ballistic nylon gear, and a helmet whilst riding my Harley-Davidson 2008 Road King motorcycle. One would think, then, if I am so interested in the Harley-Davidson brand enough to use some of the name in my screen name, why I choose not to wear Harley-Davidson motorclothes, including the leather and the boots. Here’s why…

Without a doubt, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company makes great motorcycles. The motor company has had its ups and downs, but since the ’90s — as long as I have owned and ridden a Harley — the bikes have been well-constructed and operate well. So why is it that the brand does not extend such quality to the gear displaying its label?

The leathers, generally, are okay, but often you will find that the leathers are made in Pakistan, Indonesia, or wherever the Company can secure contracts to make a large quantity of the gear at the best price to the company for retail mark-up. That is a common business practice among most any company — mass-produced products for the best price to the company. They do not extend the best price to the retail buyer, because to them and most buyers, there is value in the brand name.

Buyers willing pay a mark-up of at least US$100 or more (much more) just to have gear that advertises the brand and affiliates the wearer with a company that has a “tough biker” reputation. “Wear products that make you look like someone you want to be” is the oldest marketing scheme in history. But that image is an illusion, especially if the products are cheaply made and do not wear well.

That especially applies to their boots. Yeah, I hate to say it, but in all of my years of owning and wearing hundreds of pairs of motorcycle boots made by different manufacturers, including Harley-Davidson branded boots, I have come to the sad conclusion that H-D boots are crap. Just crap — no other word for it.

It did not used to be that way. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, some H-D branded engineer and harness boots were made by Chippewa, Red Wing, and Wolverine in the United States. But by the ’90s, the cost to manufacture boots in the United States soared with higher wages won by union contracts and higher costs to acquire leather sourced from the U.S. Also, the cost of doing business is much higher in a regulated environment in the U.S. than in other parts of the world where workers are paid very low wages, receive no benefits like health insurance and sick leave, and where there is little concern about polluting the environment.

Red Wing and Wolverine moved their production overseas to be able to operate in a lower cost situation. Chippewa did not, and that is why their boots today cost more and why the company’s profits are not as high as others. Unfortunately, according to a number of forum posts that I have read, other well-regarded U.S. brands, including Harley-Davidson boots, priced their non-US-made boots about the same comparatively with US-made Chippewa boots and the few remaining U.S. manufacturers. So do the math: what’s the likely profit margin for inferior products made in a lower-cost environment if you price them the same as quality products made in the USA?

elson1These days, the Motor Company contracts with unknown sweatshops in China to make boots carrying their label. In late August, I received a pair of Harley-Davidson Elson 8-inch lace-up side-zip boots to wear and write a review about.

I wore these boots around the house to break them in, then wore them on several long rides. My observations:

* Each boot has FOUR places where the Harley label is applied. There is a metal logo plate on the side, a metal name plate inserted across the bottom lace, an imprint of the H-D bar-and-shield logo on the heel, and to top it off, the name imprinted along the outside of the vamp. Really? They need to have their name in four places on each boot? Sheesh… talk about over-kill of brand imaging.

* For some unknown reason, the boots felt hot on my feet while wearing them indoors. My feet got sweaty and stinky rather quickly.

* The footbeds are supposed to have a cushion liner, but it does not feel that way. My feet ached after wearing the boots for just a few hours.

elson2* I can understand why the boots have side zippers in addition to the lacing — most bikers don’t want to fool around lacing boots. They just want to pull them on and be off. So a side zipper helps a lot in that regard for easy-on, easy-off. But the zipper is installed with cheap thread and after only eight zips, some threads broke on the left zipper. I had to sew the zipper back to the boot or I would not be able to use it.

* After a month of regular wear (about 30 hours, alternating with other boots from other makers), some stitching along the gusset began to break where the boots bend as the foot naturally flexes when a guy walks in them, plants his foot on pavement then lifts to operate the gear shift, and so forth. Again — another example of poor manufacture. The threads are probably cheap cotton, not Kevlar or even strong nylon. I could not repair those threads because I do not own the right equipment, including an industrial sewing machine.

* Despite a good fit, when I wore these boots on a mildly cool day (60F / 15.5C), my feet actually got cold because of wind chill. The boots do not block wind at the gusset or tongue where the laces cross. If my feet got cold on a mild dry day, imagine how wet they would become if I got caught in the rain while wearing them. (Interesting comparison: I got caught in a rather wild and heavy storm two summers ago while wearing Chippewa Firefighters. Even though those boots have a zipper down the middle, my feet never got wet.)

elsonsole* The boots have a big-lug sole, which is great for traction. The sole has an orange plug that looks like a Vibram plug — however, the sole is not marked as being oil-resistant and non-marring. The company makes no claim on their website that the sole is oil-resistant, so they are not lying. However, it is misleading the buyer to think that these soles are equivalent to Vibram 100 soles when they are not. I content (my opinion) that the lug soles on H-D boots are made of cheap knock-off composite material of some sort, not vulcanized rubber as Vibram soles are made. So not only do they pose a problem with the inevitable slick spots in a parking garage, they will decompose due to exposure to the elements during normal wear.

All-in-all, my personal opinion based on experience is that Harley-Davidson boots are not worth the price that is charged for them. Heck, they’re not worth it at any cost. They decompose quickly with normal wear. They may give you a rugged appearance when you wear them, but the boots are not as rugged as they look.

In my opinion, the best alternative to H-D boots remain Chippewa boots. Chips are well-made, made in the USA, and are affordable. Wesco boots are the best regarding construction, but the cost is daunting to most bikers. So that is why I still recommend Chippewa boots for motorcycling. Even my oldest Chips are still holding up well despite years of grueling wear. And my favorite Chippewa Firefighters remain my go-to boots when I hop on my Harley.

Life is short: You will look just as much a tough biker if you wear solidly well-constructed USA-made boots and not be a billboard for a brand.